Reading Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time”

When Zadie Smith writes “Nowadays, I know the true reason I read is to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own,” she was writing the essence of my own soul.

I’ve long been a fan of Zadie, although I’ve never actually finished any of her novels. I remember attempting to read NW but alas, to no avail. I felt disconnected with the story, although I relished the pieces she wrote for The New York Times and The New Yorker. But when I first heard of her new book Swing Time (Amazon | Indie Bound), I knew I had a chance to read Zadie in a whole other way, the same way that Roxane Gay said that her life story would be in good hands if Zadie wrote it.

Swing Time (Amazon | Indie Bound) is story of two young brown girls in London, with dreams of making it big as dancers. One is the narrator of the story whose life becomes front and center in the book, while the better dancer, Tracey, evidently disappears from the main narrative only to reappear at crucial points of the protagonist’s life.

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Ballerinas by Carlos Sanchez

It’s not uncommon for me to ride hard for the story’s main characters: I fell in love with Ifemelu and Obinze in Adichie’s Americanah, felt for Cora in Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and celebrated the nameless narrator of Nguyen’s The Sympathizer.

With Swing Time, I found it hard to even cheer for the protagonist. I found her lacking in personality, but still eager to read on to see what would anchor my time in her. I never reached that point until the final pages of the book. Continue reading

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Living as Sparrow, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer in Communist China, with Madeleine Thien

“One thing I have learned, dear Sparrow, is that light is never still and solid and so it is with love. Light can be split into many directions. Its nature is to break apart.”

I’m not sure where I should start after reading Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Amazon | Indie Bound) but here are three things I know: 1) reading a story that challenges your own political ideology is tricky, 2) it takes a great storyteller to illustrate the complexity and intimacy — really, the humanity — of the other side, and 3) that the author was fully able to transcend point no. 1 and effectively accomplish point no. 2.

(Note: Spoilers ahead.)

It is the story of an inter-generational  Chinese multi-family, a sweeping epic of politics, love and music. It is an intimate look at how the characters dealt with living in Communist China before, during and after the Great Proletarian Revolution, the demonstrations and the massacre at Tiananmen Square, all the way to Canada for a life of quiet and refuge.

What enamored me even more with Thien’s masterpiece is how at the intersection of these families is a piece of delicate literature, the mysterious “Book of Records” which has been passed down from generation to generation. It was an exhilarating and heartbreaking read, the kind that stays with you for days. Even now as I write this review, I can still remember certain scenes in my head: Sparrow at the Conservatory and then at the factories, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer on the run, Big Mother Knife on the train back home to Ba Lute.

The book begins with Marie, a ten-year old girl who lives in Canada with her mother. After learning about her father’s (Kai) suicide in Hongkong, she grieves and recalls the most tender moments with him. Soon, the family of two receives a visitor, Ai-Ming, the daughter of Kai’s old friend, Sparrow. It is through Ai-Ming that Marie learns about Communist China, the friendship of their fathers and one of the reasons why Ai-Ming left.

Ai-Ming hesitated for a long time before answering. Finally, she told me about days and nights when more than a million people had come to Square. Students had begun a hunger strike that lasted seven days and Ai-ming herself had spent nights on the concrete, sleeping beside her best friend, Yiwen. They sat in the open, with almost nothing to shelter them from the sun or rain. During those six weeks of demonstrations, she had felt at home in China; she had understood, for the first time, what it felt to look at her country through her own eyes and her own history, to come awake alongside million of others. She didn’t want to be her own still river, she wished to be a part of the ocean.

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In a time when protests are erupting all over the country against Trump’s fascist regime, there were moments when I identified with Ai-Ming and her generation’s struggle for democracy. At the same time, she was living in a much different context, with an entirely different form of government. What was clear to me though was the power of people, (specifically students) en masse to mobilize against the state, a ripple in the fabric of Ai-Ming’s generation heard throughout the world.

But the story started way before the massacre, the protests and the hunger strike at Tiananmen Square. The story started right after the Communist revolution in China, when the Party led by Mao Zedong gained control. Revolutionary fervor was high, and Thien gave a glimpse of this vividly through a family living in Shanghai. There was Big Mother Knife, a matriarch, married to Ba Lute who was a Party cadre with their children Sparrow, a gifted composer and the younger brothers, Flying Bear and Da Shan. There was Big Mother’s sister Swirl, her husband Wen the Dreamer and their daughter, Zhuli. And there was Kai, a friend of both Zhuli and Sparrow. These characters all take center stage at some point in the book, overlapping and seamlessly weaving into one another. But first, a few basics.

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Revisiting History, with Rabih Alameddine

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. 
–Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

I walked up the stairs to the Poetry Room of the City Lights Bookstore one evening, eager to see Rabih Alameddine and listen to a reading from his most recent book, The Angel of HistoryWhile I did not know much about the new book, I read An Unnecessary Woman this year and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is every book lover’s delight, and you can read about my review of the book here.

Rabih read two passages from the book, and both times I held my breath at equal intervals — unfamiliar with the story but intimately acquainted with the themes of memory, of remembering all too well.

It couldn’t have been a better time to be reminded of not forgetting. With the onslaught of cultural and political amnesia these days, how can the importance of history be reinstated in a way that fosters consciousness?

The imminent return of a ruling family that nearly destroyed my home country, the Philippines, is terrifying, while the rise of a fascist government in the U.S., which has unleashed a wave of white supremacy all over the country  (even in the most self-proclaimed progressive bastions) is alarming.

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Given the current climate, Rabih was right. And he was bringing up what used to be a significant issue among the population — the AIDS epidemic.

I watched as Rabih expressed his hurt, anger, grief and disbelief, at how easy it is to forget. That just few decades ago, gay men were dying in incredulous numbers as the AIDS epidemic run rampant in places like San Francisco and New York City. I admit that I’m a bad gay ally — that as a queer woman, I really don’t know much about what happened.

The Angel of History explores the life of Jacob, a gay Arab man living in San Francisco whose friends and partner succumbed to the AIDS epidemic. He’s grieving, in utter desolation because of the loss of lives, and he lives out his life as if writing an endless letter to his deceased partner he calls “Doc.” Continue reading

A Crisis of Values, with Karan Mahajan

This is what it felt like to be a bomb. You were coiled up, majestic with blackness, unaware that the universe outside you existed, and then a wire snapped and ripped open your eyelids all the way around and you had a vision of the world that was 360 degrees, and everything in your purview was doomed by seeing.

160404_r27906-1200I picked up Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs a week ago, after seeing it on the National Book Awards longlist for fiction. I’ve been on a literary fiction trajectory these past few weeks, after being immersed in the brilliant work of Colson Whitehead and Brit Bennett.

We live in a time of war. While the ongoing civil war in Syria is the most apparent, the struggle for power around the world has created tensions met with varying degrees of violence. There are threats of nuclear bombs being detonated, militant groups vying for territories and threats of violence in different parts of the world: Philippines, South Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan.

But what counts as a “bomb” is not just merely physical, but on political, social and emotional levels as well. After all, no one saw this bomb coming: Donald Trump winning the election. What Mahajan explores in the book are not just the actual bombs, but the interconnected-ness of the origins, the bomb itself and the aftermath.

At the heart of the story is Mansoor, a victim of the Lajpat Nagar market bombing in Delhi, India. He was only 11 years old when the bombing happened, killing two of his friends — the brothers Tushar and Nakul — instantly. The brothers’ parents, Vikas and Deepa Khurana, spent the subsequent years in alternating periods of rage and grief, as Mansoor and family tried to heal from the tragedy.

People were closest to animals when they were sleeping and fighting for wakefulness. Or dying and fighting for life.

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Lajpat Nagar market, Delhi. (Source)

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How to Mother, with Brit Bennett

“An inside hurt was supposed to stay inside.
How strange it must be to hurt in an outside way you can’t hide.”
The Mothers, Brit Bennett

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Me, a copy of The Mothers, accompanying tote and saltwater. (October, 2016)

Often times, we are attuned to grand and sweeping tales about life and death, love and heartbreak, stories which take us to new landscapes, push us to new heights, until we find a well-hidden lesson in one of the pages, so minute that if we weren’t paying attention closely, we would’ve missed it.

When I picked up Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, I knew that it wasn’t one of those tales. It was a book about a small black community in southern California, written in a folkloric way with the nuances of modern technology. The book is named after a group of older women in the community, wise in their years and lovingly all-knowing.

We were girls once. As hard as that is to believe.

Oh, you can’t see it now — our bodies have stretched and sagged, faces and necks dropping. That’s what happens when you get old. Every part of you drops, as if the body is moving closer to where it’s from and where it’ll return.

The Mothers’ lives revolved around Upper Room, a small church in Oceanside, California and its attendants. There was Nadia Turner, a young woman who lived with her father (Robert) and whose mom (Elise) shot herself one day; her best friend Aubrey, a quiet girl who ran away from home (and her mother); and Luke Sheppard, the pastor’s son, Nadia’s former lover who became Aubrey’s husband.

And while Bennett illustrates each character’s struggle with a depth that readers can empathize with, there are also deeper tensions that she addresses with lucidity.

Nadia keeps replaying details leading up to her mother’s suicide in mind, hoping she can find an answer to a growing number of why’s. One can only assume the weight imposed upon a frightened girl, the uncertainties weighing her down. Grief doesn’t have the same face, but it touches the heart and soul in almost the same way.

Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.

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A Lifetime of Remembering, with Colson Whitehead

I’m usually a tad bit late to everything but for Colson Whitehead’s reading at the Green Apple Books in the Sunset, I was an hour early. His book The Underground Railroad has just been longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award for fiction and while the reading wasn’t for another hour, the place was already packed.

While waiting for the event to start, I resumed reading as I was only halfway through the book. And while I have read the work of many black writers and poets (Baldwin and Lorde and Finney are favorites), I haven’t read a lot of books on slave narratives. A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing at the time of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s deaths at the hands of the police, shaken with anger at a system that does not remember.

The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora, a slave who ran away from a plantation in Georgia through a real-life railroad built underground. She used the railroad three times: one heading towards the Carolinas, the second towards Tennessee and then Indiana. Historically, the “underground railroad” was a network of secret routes and safe houses, established by abolitionists and free slaves to aid black folks to get to free states.

In South Carolina, Cora got her first taste of life outside the plantation as “Bessie.” She lived in a dormitory with other free women, overseen by white nuns who facilitated their job placement, made sure they were getting some education, took care of their health. It was here that Cora was reminded of her mother Mabel, who ran away from the plantation herself. She was never caught, but she never came back for her daughter either.

It had been a whim. Once Mabel ran, Cora thought of her as little as possible. After landing in South Carolina, she realized that she had banished her mother not from sadness but from rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom’s bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell. A child. Her company would have made the escape more difficult, but Cora hadn’t been a baby. If she could pick cotton, she could run. She would have died in that place, after untold brutalities, if Caesar had not come along.

Along with her pursuit of freedom from slavery, Cora struggled with a child’s yearning for her mother and the pain of abandonment. There were times when this gave her hope, that she knew if her mother could do it so could she. At other times it filled her with the unspeakable anger of being left to suffer, of terrible loss. Cora never finds out what happened to her mother (whether she made it to Canada at all), but this is where Colson’s genius becomes apparent. Towards the end of the book, there is a chapter on Mabel.

After having to flee South Carolina for fear of being caught by Ridgeway, the slave-catcher, she lands in North Carolina where she hid in the railroad conductor’s attic for months. She couldn’t come out, as the white conductor and his wife did their best to conceal harboring a runaway slave. From the attic, she watched bounty hunters and informers rewarded with every black life caught at the park across the house. Continue reading

19 Years Later: Harry Potter & I

The memory is clear as day: the arrival of relatives from the U.S. meant imported goods (chocolates, clothes) from a balikbayan box but this, this time, was no usual clamoring. My Lola, who used to travel back and forth between the Philippines and her adopted home country would always come home to see the rest of her kids (my mom) and grandkids (us).

My sister Mel and I dressed up hurriedly, waiting patiently at my grandmother’s house for her arrival. Our excitement was tripled that day because she was not only 1) coming home 2) with pasalubong but because she was also the 3) bearer of more important packages.

After the tears-eyed embraces, after bellies have been filled with home-cooked meals, all of us would gather in the living room, the balikbayan box the center of everyone’s attention. After boxes of chocolates, more clothes, more socks and canned goods were handed out, she reached to the bottom of the box and pulled out the heaviest parcel and handed them to Mel and I.

We tore the brown packaging immediately. I ran my hand over the book’s cover, the grooves easy on my fingers. Right at the moment, my sister and I were the happiest, newest owners of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

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I’ve been a fan ever since and played my due diligence of Potter mania: watched the movies, bought Harry Potter-ish (quill) pens and (parchment) notebooks, wished I could be a wizard as well, got sorted into the Gryffindor house at Pottermore.

To add to a lifelong affinity of HP, Mel and I planned to attend the midnight book release of the final book of the series, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in our local bookstore. As that evening wore on, I had mixed feelings of excitement and nervousness, remembering the first time I ever laid hands on an HP book. But I was also tired and midnight is way past my bedtime.

A store assistant holds copies of the book of the play of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child parts One and Two at a bookstore in London

We didn’t even up going (my sister was also tired and too sleepy for HP) but she went ahead and got the books the next day. She spent three hours that day reading the entire book, constantly sending me updates and near-spoilers. It wasn’t until after about three weeks that I finally sat down to read the final book of the series, which took me about a few days worth of night-time reading.

The script format takes a while to get used to, but it eases you in right away. Since the last book is fantastically also a play out in London at the moment, it makes sense. The play runs until December 2017 and from the looks of it, every night is already sold out.

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But back to the book: Albus Severus Potter, the middle child (out of three) of Harry and Ginny (Weasley) takes center stage along with Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius. Yes, you read that right. Continue reading

A Series of Simple Joys, with Elizabeth Strout

I read Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton in a span of two days. It was hard to put down, for many good reasons.

Lucy Barton’s story is not grand by any means. She’s laying on a hospital bed in Manhattan for the most part, as she recounts experiences, relationships and various moments in life.

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There aren’t any unexpected plot twists, nor any breathtaking events that unfold. What you have is this instead: the clear voice of a woman, with an unhurried perspective on life.

I’m a fan of books that weave the political with the personal, books that explore spirituality, philosophy, history and literature. Of the most recent books I’ve immersed myself in, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman and Alain de Botton’s On Love: A Novel.

Lucy’s story wasn’t as wild, or philosophical, or as political as I’m used to but her voice stayed with me for a few days after I finished. She wrote about reading a lot, something I discovered after looking at all the pages I marked and went back to. Just like me, she grew up in the company of books. And just like me, she dreamt of being a writer.

My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my one work was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel alone!

The stark simplicity and honesty of her voice struck me as genuine and whereas in other instances I would be uncomfortable, I was with her.

I say this because as a queer brown immigrant from the Philippines, it’s rare that I am able to find connections with those who enjoy (whether they are aware of it or not, whether they are complicit or not) privileges that have caused the oppression of others.

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An Unnecessary Woman (And Her Books) by Rabih Alameddine

How does the old cliché go? When every Arab girl stood in line waiting for God to hand out the desperate-to-get-married gene, I must have been somewhere else, probably lost in a book.

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Halabi Bookstore, Beirut

Ah, but where to begin with this book? I picked up a copy of Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman from a local bookstore at Green Apple Books. It was nestled in the annex, along with other well-read and creased spines.

Having just read Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers, I was a little disoriented upon reading Alameddine’s first few pages. Porter’s writing had a different style and his voice stuck with me more than I thought it did.

My introduction to Aaliya was abrupt. Who was this character with the blue hair smack dab in Beirut?

Turns out, I have a lot more in common with this precarious woman, this reader with a voracious appetite who could not be bothered to spend time with the three matriarchs who ruled her apartment complex. While Fadia, Marie-Therese and Joumana spent their mornings, afternoons and evenings drinking ambrosia coffee, filing their nails, talking about their children (and their children’s plans or lack thereof), planning trips to the salon, Aaliya spent her days huddled in her apartment devoted to the written word, a phrase that I also use to describe my dedication to literature.

I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word. Literature is my sandbox. In it I play, build my forts and castles, spend glorious time. It is the world outside that box that gives me trouble. I have adapted tamely, though not conventionally, to this visible world so I can retreat without much inconvenience into my inner world of books.

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On Grief and the Permission to Leave, with Max Porter

I don’t know who to thank for bringing Max Porter’s book Grief is the Thing with Feathers within my sphere of biblio-senses, but I owe them a lifetime of gratitude. While grief and gratitude may be emotions on opposite ends, I was able to reconcile both in this book — one of the most memorable pieces of literature I’ve ever read.

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Grief is fiction, also poetry, centered on the death of “Mum,” whose husband simply called “Dad” and whose children called “Boys” narrate loss and pain in the book. An unexpected character “Crow” also appears consistently, whose presence makes for a sometimes-hilarious, sometimes-profound literary experience.

Through poignant vignettes, Mum’s death is foretold by all three — Dad, the boys and Crow — in varying emotional landscapes, as the small family slowly builds their life without her.

The Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross states that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I think it’s safe to say that the characters go through these stages, once you get into the novel’s unconventional but refreshing format.

At the heart of the Grief is its ability to capture the gravity of loss, and put it into words.

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Where are the fire engines? Where is the noise and glamour of an event like this? Where are the strangers going out of their way to help, screaming, flinging bits of emergency glow-in-the-dark equipment at us to try and settle us and save us? There should be men in helmets speaking a new and dramatic language of crisis.

The boys’ narrative was innocent, infinitely curious about death, its specifics and (always about) Dad. In some ways, it seemed like losing their mother was an easier thing for them than it was for their father’s. They had each other to console and derive comfort from. While they were once accomplices in mischief before their mother’s death, they became great allies in dealing with grief. Continue reading